Today is the Yahrzeit (Jewish anniversary of death) of my late brother, and only sibling, Jonathan.
“Jonny” (as most people knew him) took his own life at the age of just 21. He would have been 50 last May.
We Jews, on a Yahrzeit, light a 24-hour candle and recite Kaddish (the memorial prayer), but – whilst I observe such traditions – they leave me rather cold. And, with the inexorable passing of time, memories of Jonny – who left us in December 1979 – have, inevitably, become fainter. So, I thought it would be nice to have a permanent e-memorial for him here . . .
Happy days: on Jonny's lap (circa 1968)
My parents adopted Jonny, as a three-week old baby, following eight childless years (I was a ‘mistake’, though thankfully not an unwelcome one, arriving on the scene some nine years later). Naturally, they loved Jonny as their own, and his adoption was never an issue for him – as he used to tell his friends, “My mother is the one who clothed and fed me.”
Jonny was, by all accounts, a lovely child, and – being the first grandchild on my mother’s side of the family – adored by all. Our grandfather, who was loathe to leave his East End menswear business for anything less than a funeral (and, even then, only in the most immediate family), once even took him to New York City on the QE2.
By the time of his Barmitzvah, however, Jonny’s behavior had become rather erratic, and he was soon playing truant from school. He had started taking drugs, and – Jonny being Jonny – not by halves. He, later, even stole a substantial amount of cash from our grandfather, in order to fund a trip (in both senses of the word) to South America.
Even if Jonny had a hereditary predisposition to it, medical research would now strongly indicate that his “schizophrenia” (that was the label given) was triggered by such early teenage consumption. Following a BBC documentary on the subject, while I was back in the UK in 2005, I determined with my then girlfriend that I would attempt to make contact with Jonny’s old school friends, in order to find out more about his life than the little I had managed to glean from my parents (and, likely, more than what they even knew).
Some three days later, in one of those weird twists of fate, I bumped into one of those friends, Ron, who had been living in Israel for nearly thirty years, but was visiting London following the death of his father. We were both moved, having not seen each other since I was a kid, and he related how, following the previous evening’s Shiva (mourning gathering), he and the two others – there were four in their group at Hasmonean Grammar School – had drunk a toast to Jonny.
I attended the Shiva on the following evening, where the three school mates related things about Jonny that I had simply never heard. My parents, having suffered terribly through Jonny’s teenage years, did not, naturally, have wonderful memories of the period. But now, from a thoroughly different perspective, I felt like I had discovered a new brother. Jonny’s charisma was such, they said, that a hush would descend when he spoke or entered a room. And it was apparent that (however foolhardily at the time) they had all looked up to Jonny for experimenting with everything, and to an extent, more than they had dared.
Awareness of drug abuse was very different in the early to mid-Seventies, and my parents, understandably, had no idea how to handle the situation (the only person who did was my then septuagenarian “Polish” grandmother). Another of Jonny’s school clique, Pete, recalls being in our home one Hannuka, and Jonny coming down to the family candle-lighting clutching a large lump of cannabis.
Jonny soon started frequenting a squat in Hampstead, where he became acquainted with Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious (in October 1978, a friend of Jonny’s who happened to be in New York City rather naively attempted to visit Vicious in his Manhattan police station cell, following his arrest for the murder of girlfriend Nancy Spungen). Having Jonny as my big brother – and being exposed, even as a young child, to the music of, inter alia, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors, and The Allman Brothers Band – meant that I could never get into the insipid crap enjoyed by my contemporaries. And I am eternally grateful to Jonny for that.
My parents considered that some time spent in Israel might help Jonny. Ever resourceful, however, he soon found his way to Kibbutz Gezer, which was by all accounts, in the mid-Seventies, precisely the kind of hippie hangout where they did not want him to be.
According to Dave, the other member of the gang of four, “Johnny was clear in his mind that he was following the correct course and wanted people around to share with him what he was experiencing.” With the cash stolen from our grandfather, Jonny offered to buy his pals tickets to Colombia (though this was one step too far for them).
“Jonny chose the destination,” Dave remembers, “by taking a large map of South America, blindfolding himself, and sticking a pin down at random. It landed on a place called Cochabamba in Colombia. Consequently, our adopted squat cat was given that name and Jonny was on a plane out there.”
Pete recollects that, “on arrival in Bogota, Jonny tried to buy drugs off an undercover policeman and, as a result, spent a night in jail and was deported the next day” (though not, Dave adds, before Jonny’s travelling companions had to stump up 500 US Dollars in cash to obtain his release, “which in those days . . .”)
Pete recalls trying to “save” Jonny, at some point following his return from South America, but finding him, by that stage, “too far gone” (they played squash, but Jonny was seemingly oblivious to the ball). Jonny spent his last few years horribly drugged-up (only, this time, legally), in a psychiatric hospital in South London.
It is great to meet Jonny’s old mates – now a carpenter (Ron), architect (Pete), and company administrator (Dave) – for a curry whenever I am back in London, when we reminisce about him lovingly. Jonny clearly was (and his memory still is) very special to them. Jonny, too, obviously liked his friends “real”, and his choices, at so tender an age, prove him to have been extremely perceptive (Dave still goes to watch Hendon Football Club, and – as anyone who has had the misfortune will testify – it doesn’t get much more “real” than that).
I don’t think Jonny would have liked it too much down here in 2008, and – while there should be no romanticising his tragic demise (“Dad,” he asked towards the end, “why am I like this?”), or its probable cause – he, at least, in his short but eventful life, made an indelible mark on the consciousnesses and memories of those close to him. That is more than can be said for most of us.
Jonny, if you are reading this post Up There (where I am sure “it” is all legal), have one for us. God bless.
Sweet sixteens: (from left) David Rosen, Ron Dombey & Jonny (1974)
[If you happened to come across, or knew, Jonny, I would love to hear from you.]